March 2022 Issue
Reducing Food Waste
By Rosanne Rust, MS, RDN
Vol. 24, No. 3, P. 36
The Dietitian’s Role in Helping the Cause and Strategies for Counseling Clients
The impact food waste is having on the environment has been a topic of concern for several years. People often define food waste as leftovers or spoiled food in the fridge they eventually throw away. The truth is, food waste is a much larger problem. According to the USDA, it’s estimated that Americans dispose of 30% to 40% of the food supply in the United States, which wastes money, time, and natural resources.1
Previous generations may have viewed wasting food as an issue of household hunger and budgeting. Families often did everything they could to prevent food waste because money was tight and they needed sustenance. Therefore, every scrap was used and nothing was thrown away. Today’s concerns revolve around sustainability and global hunger.
Data are available from numerous sources that correlate food production and waste with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Wasted food ends up in municipal landfills, releasing GHGs that have a negative impact on the environment. Food is the single largest category of material placed in landfills.1,2 Mitigating GHG emissions will require a team effort across the globe for innovation and partnership.
Much misinformation and disagreement abound regarding what actions will have the most impact. Some believe a reduction in animal agriculture will have the largest influence on reducing GHG emissions. Proponents of sustainable animal agriculture, however, feel that animals have a role to play in a circular food system. Other disagreements include the various calculations of GHG emissions that may not always line up with one another. However, there’s agreement about the impact food waste in landfills has on the environment, so this is something everyone can work on to help reduce.
Nutrition professionals can help clients understand how food waste impacts their household as well as the toll it takes on the environment. Encouraging clients to be mindful of the food they waste by adopting zero-waste shopping and cooking strategies can save them money and perhaps improve their diet quality in the process.
Food Waste Data and the Food Recovery Hierarchy
Food waste is an issue across the entire food supply chain that encompasses two categories: loss (never delivered or prepared) and waste (thrown away). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines food waste as “the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, foodservice providers, and consumers.”3
The trouble with food waste, beyond becoming garbage in kitchen trash cans and municipal landfills, is that it spans the entire global food supply chain while many people around the world don’t have access to food. As population rates continue to rise, more people may go hungry. The global population reached nearly 7.9 billion people in 2021. That’s about 6 billion more people than in the 1920s and double the people of the 1960s. In addition, about one-third of the world’s population lives in poverty with limited access to energy, water, or food.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2018 Wasted Food Report, the United States generated 63 million tons of food waste in 2018, which includes food that was never eaten.4 (Interestingly, increased purchases of take-out and food eaten at home during the pandemic produced even more food waste in 2020 and 2021.) The United States wastes more food than any other country, accounting for 6% of human-caused GHG emissions.3,4 Fortunately, solutions that mitigate GHGs in the form of sustainable food systems have been set in motion.
In 2015, the USDA and EPA announced the first-ever US 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal to cut food loss and waste in half by 2030. The EPA developed a Food Recovery Hierarchy (see figure below) to prioritize the actions various organizations can take to help divert food waste from landfills. Each tier of the hierarchy (eg, source reduction, feed hungry people, feed animals, industrial uses, composting, and landfill/incineration) focuses on different management strategies to reduce wasted food that ends up in landfills.5 The hierarchy involves decreasing the volume of surplus food; diverting extra food from landfills to food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters to feed the hungry; and using food scraps to feed animals or produce fuel sources or compost.4-6 Taking these measures to reduce food waste can help mitigate climate change across the entire food supply chain.7-10
Food Loss and Food Waste Behind the Scenes
While it’s important to learn about the enormity of food loss and waste, it’s also crucial to determine how and why it happens. Food loss can occur between the field and the grocery store—and for several reasons. Getting food to the grocery store is a complex and labor-intensive process involving many systems that begins with agricultural production and ends with food distribution. In the simplest terms, this process involves four steps: production, processing, distribution, and the consumer market.
Food production relies on growers, including farmers and ranchers; workers; and critical inputs (eg, soil, sun, natural resources, water). Some food loss is unpreventable or uncontrollable. Understanding the complexity of these systems can help dietitians become more informed and compassionate about the work that’s done to get food to grocery stores and ultimately consumers’ tables. The following examples explain where food loss and waste frequently occur:
• Farming and food production. Farmers grow plants and grains to feed animals that produce meat, cheese, milk, or eggs, and they grow plants and grains for human consumption.
• Harvest time. Food may be lost in the field or in transport due to spoilage, insects or other pests, molds, or bacteria, as well as during postharvest handling and storage.
• Storage. After the harvest, plant and animal products must be transported from the field to be stored at proper temperatures and humidity.
• Transportation. Globally, food is mostly exported by sea and throughout the United States by trucks. Food is transported to distribution centers and then to grocers (usually within only a few days) and then to homes and restaurants.
So food loss can happen in the field, during storage, or via transport. At the retail level, food waste often is due to spoilage because of lack of refrigeration, overordering, or both. At the consumer level, food waste often results from overbuying, lack of meal planning, improper storage, or misconceptions about best-by dates. While food spoilage is one of the chief reasons people throw away food, many Americans discard good, safe, and consumable food. What changes can clients and consumers at large make in their shopping and cooking routines that can have a positive impact? The following strategies can help.
Engage in Zero-Waste Cooking
Zero-waste cooking is a cooking style that uses as much of the food purchased as possible and incorporates shopping and food storage strategies that waste the least amount of food. The first steps in zero-waste cooking involve knowing what you have on hand and buying only what you need or what you can use in the next week or so. Next is proper food storage to help reduce waste, and, finally, engaging in meal planning, cooking, and eating everything purchased—including cooked leftovers.
Create Shopping Lists That Yield Less Waste
Providing clients with zero-waste food shopping strategies can support their health needs and their budget. Most clients will be happy to learn that reducing food waste ultimately can save them money. One budget-friendly, zero-waste shopping tip that will help clients save money, meet their nutrient needs, and reduce food waste is to buy shelf-stable canned or frozen fruits and vegetables. Most Americans don’t meet fruit and vegetable intake requirements, so by including some canned and frozen fruits and vegetables in their diets, clients can more easily meet their nutrition needs with less food waste. In addition, incorporating these foods on weekly or monthly shopping trips also helps maintain staple ingredients in the kitchen for planning healthful meals.
Ultimately, the more organized the grocery list, the more opportunity there is to save money and prevent food waste. Here are some basic shopping tips to review with clients.
• Check what’s in their home pantries, refrigerators, and freezers and plan some meals around what they have on hand. Then create a grocery list.
• Bring the written list to the store, and stick to it, avoiding impulse buys.
• Make sure clients have a plan for each item they add to their grocery carts.
• Encourage clients to purchase ingredients they can use in multiple ways.
• Suggest clients look for store sales or specials but refrain from purchasing food they can’t use just because it’s on sale.
• Recommend clients use smartphone apps such as AnyList or Mealime to organize their shopping lists.
Here’s a simple shopping list that can create two lunches, two snacks, and two dinners for two people, using kitchen staples such as oil, vinegar, and salad dressing, resulting in zero food waste.
The Shopping List
Whole roasting chicken, frozen berries, canned or fresh peaches, canned corn, frozen peas, frozen broccoli, fresh carrots, 3-lb bag potatoes, plain Greek yogurt, cheese, mixed greens, six pita pockets
• Chicken stuffed pita sandwiches with lettuce and canned or fresh peaches
• Baked potatoes stuffed with broccoli (and other leftovers or veggies on hand) and topped with cheese
• Fruit smoothie
• Yogurt parfait with berries
• Roasted chicken with carrots and potatoes and a green salad
• Chicken shepherd’s pie made with chopped leftover chicken, canned corn, and frozen peas, topped with mashed potatoes and baked
Proper Food Storage
Once the groceries are home, clients will need to store them properly to help preserve the food longer, make the most of the ingredients they buy, and prevent waste.
A 2019 study showed the average American may not be using their refrigerator properly. The study found that while people planned to eat all the meat and vegetables in their refrigerator, they finished only about one-half. Their intentions were good, but they didn’t meet their own expectations to prepare and cook the food or freeze it for later use. Overall, the study found that people are concerned about food safety and quality, and this drives their decisions to discard foods. The study also found that how often consumers cleaned their refrigerator and how they shopped at the supermarket affected how they used their refrigerators.11,12
Dietitians may not think about discussing kitchen appliances with clients, but it can be useful to know what type of refrigerator-freezer they have and teach them about proper food storage. Refrigerators should be set at 38˚ to 40˚ F (never above 40˚), and the freezer should maintain 0˚ F.
Advise clients to use their freezer as a food waste–reduction strategy. From a food safety perspective, clients can freeze food indefinitely if they maintain the proper temperature.
Recommend clients store meat in the freezer if it has been in the refrigerator for more than two days. They should wrap the meat tightly in plastic wrap or store it in an airtight container and place it in the freezer. Even if clients shop on Monday and don’t think they’ll use the meat until Saturday, they should store it in the freezer until the day before they use it. Clients also can freeze excess cheese or butter for later use.
Clients who aren’t eating the fresh vegetables they store in the refrigerator should blanch them for a minute in boiling water, drain and rinse them in cold water, allow them to dry in a colander, and place them in freezer bags and then the freezer.
Some foods will lose their quality if they aren’t packaged properly and are stored for more than three months. Suggest clients remove as much air as possible when wrapping foods, using airtight bags or freezer containers to avoid oxidation.
Clients should store dairy products and meats in the coldest part of the refrigerator—not on the door. In addition, they should store dairy products, eggs, and meats on lower shelves and leftovers on upper shelves.
Fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, and plums emit ethylene, so clients should store them separately from other produce.
Since fruits and vegetables vary in the amount of humidity they require, clients should check the humidity settings in their refrigerators and place greens, lettuce, celery, carrots, green beans, broccoli, and cauliflower in the more humid drawer, and bagged apples, grapes, and peppers in the less humid drawer. Clients shouldn’t refrigerate tomatoes, onions, squash, or potatoes because refrigeration affects their flavor and quality. Clients shouldn’t wash berries until they’re ready to eat them. They can wash greens before storing them and place them in a paper towel to absorb moisture.
Another way clients can prevent food waste is to create meals from a variety of leftovers. They can incorporate leftover vegetables, cooked meats, or other ingredients they need to eat before they spoil. Dietitians who create recipes can help clients develop quick and healthful meals and snacks. Simple ideas include stuffed baked potatoes using leftover ingredients. Clients can bake potatoes and stuff them with leftover chili, vegetables, cheese, or beans. They can make a power bowl with leftover veggies and a protein source on top of a bed of rice or other grain such as quinoa. Clients also can scramble eggs with vegetables and cheese left in the refrigerator. An egg strata is a great way to use up stale bread and leftover bits of ham and vegetables. Pasta also can serve as a backdrop for leftover vegetables or those that must be cooked.
Dietitians can routinely provide recipes for meals and snacks that will encourage clients to waste less food. Even if dietitians don’t discuss the intricacies of food loss and waste throughout the supply chain, and its effects on the environment and global hunger, they still can offer clients tools that will help them plan food budgets, create and organize grocery lists, store food properly, and prep simple meals with less waste—all of which is a win-win for their health and the health of the planet.
— Rosanne Rust, MS, RDN, is the owner of Rust Nutrition Services, which offers nutrition
communications content to clients. She created her Chew the Facts brand that delivers food and nutrition science news and inspiration. She has coauthored and authored several books, including DASH Diet For Dummies and Zero Waste Cooking For Dummies.
1. Food waste FAQs. US Department of Agriculture website. https://www.usda.gov/foodwaste/faqs
2. United States 2030 food loss and waste reduction goal. US Environmental Protection Agency website. https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/united-states-2030-food-loss-and-waste-reduction-goal. Updated September 27, 2021.
3. Food loss and food waste. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website. https://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/flw-data)
4. US Environmental Protection Agency. 2018 wasted food report. https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2020-11/documents/2018_wasted_food_report-11-9-20_final_.pdf. Published November 2020.
5. Food recovery hierarchy. US Environmental Protection Agency website. https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/food-recovery-hierarchy. Updated September 17, 2021.
6. McBride M. Turning food waste into feed: benefits and trade-offs for nature. World Wildlife Fund website. https://www.worldwildlife.org/blogs/sustainability-works/posts/turning-food-waste-into-feed-benefits-and-trade-offs-for-nature. Published July 12, 2021.
7. Food waste in America in 2022: statistics + facts. RTS website. https://www.rts.com/resources/guides/food-waste-america/
8. Sustainable management of food. US Environmental Protection Agency website. https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food. Updated November 30, 2021.
9. Mitloehner F. The carbon impact of food waste: the problem with what we’re not eating. CLEAR Center website.
https://clear.ucdavis.edu/blog/carbon-impact-food-waste-problem-what-were-not-eating. Published November 13, 2020.
10. Sustainability. Animal Agriculture Alliance website. https://animalagalliance.org/issues/sustainability/
11. Davenport ML, Qi D, Roe BE. Food-related routines, product characteristics, and household food waste in the United States: a refrigerator-based pilot study. Resour Conserv Recycl. 2019;150:104440.
12. Storing food in the freezer. Safe Food website. https://www.safefood.net/food-storage/freezing